Beltway Basketball Beat: Patriots show poise in historic upset

Dave Preston is an AP Top 25 voter. Check out his ballots here.

When Tony Skinn was named George Mason’s head men’s basketball coach last spring, it seemed rather easy to connect the dots from the 2006 Final Four team to the present.

After all, Skinn was the second-leading scorer on the Cinderella team that played its way past blue bloods Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn that March. But nobody expected such a signature win so soon: the Patriots’ (18-8, 7-6 Atlantic 10) 71-67 upset over No. 16 Dayton Wednesday was their first-ever victory over a ranked foe at Eagle Bank Arena.

And it has a team that’s been streaky (two three-game losing streaks plus a three-game winning streak in league play) trending in the right direction.

“The word of the day was poise,” Skinn said after the victory. “Games like this, you get so excited about, you know the energy is gonna be there, you know the effort is gonna be there. But you have to collectively be able to maintain some sort of poise.”

The Flyers have been in the Top 25 since mid-January and boast the Atlantic 10’s top scorer in DaRon Holmes II. And even though he scored 26 points, Mason played him in a manner that limited his teammates to 5-15 from three-point range after halftime.

“Defensively, we just came in and tried to pressure Holmes as much as we can,” guard Keyshawn Hall said. “And then, when they swing, we just had to rotate the right way and close out the right way and not let them get open threes, because they’re one of the best shooting teams in the country.”

The second half surge (from 11 points down to eight ahead) was led by the team’s “engine” Baraka Okojie, who scored all 19 of his points after intermission.

“My coaches got on me in the first half about not being aggressive, not getting downhill — what I do best, so I came out in the second half and just decided to attack their defense because they were giving us a little bit of problems,” Okojie said. “Once I got downhill and made the right decision every single time I felt like that changed the game.”

Okojie also went 9-9 at the free throw line in the second half.

Things don’t get any easier for the Patriots, who play three of their next five games away from Fairfax. Saturday, they visit first place Loyola Chicago. But their coach sees Wednesday’s victory as more than a statement but a springboard.

“As good of a win as this is, I’m just really excited for those guys because I think that this is one of those wins where you start believing certain things.” Skinn said. “And when you believe in those certain things good things tend to happen.”

This Week’s Starting Five:

Up Top: UConn solidified its hold on No. 1 with a double-digit dismemberment of then-No. 4 Marquette, only to lose by 19 on the road at No. 15 Creighton. Credit the fired coach-bounce for Ohio State’s upset of then-No. 2 Purdue, but don’t sleep on the new No. 2 Houston that handled No. 6 Iowa State Monday night (the Cougars get No. 11 Baylor Saturday).

My biggest variances this week: I had No. 19 San Diego State 14th on my ballot, No. 15 Creighton 21st, unranked Virginia 18th, and did not have No. 13 Alabama in my Top 25. This week’s tough omissions: the Crimson Tide, Colorado State, Florida and BYU. Small school shout-outs: Grand Canyon University and McNeese State.

Going Inside: Maryland (14-13, 6-10 Big Ten) dropped consecutive games to No. 14 Illinois and at Wisconsin (out of this week’s rankings after dropping five of six) to slip into the bottom four of the conference, putting the Terps on track to play in the Big Ten Tournament’s “dreaded first round” for the first time since joining the league in 2014.

But they do play three schools right ahead of them in the standings — Rutgers, Indiana and Penn State — before the season wraps up. If they want to finish strong, they have to start better: Tuesday’s loss to the Badgers saw the Terps begin the night by shooting 1-3 with two turnovers over the first four minutes.

“We’re getting off to, you know, just slow starts offensively,” Coach Kevin Willard told the Maryland Sports Network after the game. “We’re just getting off to lethargic starts.”

While the current coach focuses on better starts, the school mourns the passing of the man who helped turn the Terps from an ACC underachiever into a national program. Charles “Lefty” Driesell died Saturday at the age of 92.

He came to campus in 1969 and posted 348 wins in his 17 seasons that included the 1972 NIT Championship and the 1984 ACC Tournament title.

“People don’t understand what he did when he took over the program, to make it quickly what it became,” fellow Hall of Famer and former Terps Coach Gary Williams said Saturday. “He established a standard here at the University of Maryland, he had done it — he had gotten it on a national level. Even though we had some things that weren’t right when I got here we were able to get it back on a national level. And I think it’s easier when it’s already been done to repeat it.”

In other words, Maryland’s not a basketball school without the late lefthander.

Perimeter Play: Virginia (20-7, 11-5 ACC) may be on track to return to the NCAA Tournament (the latest Bracketology model on has them a No. 9 seed), but when they lose these Cavaliers lose big.

All seven defeats have come by double digits and by an average of 21 points. Monday they were mauled by Virginia Tech 75-41 in a game where the Hokies scored 20 straight points in the first half.

“It’s a credit to how well Virginia Tech played but also that we didn’t have the right mindset,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “Or the ability to withstand their runs to try to climb back in and that’s where your soundness is really challenged and you gotta compete.”

The Cavaliers get to compete with first place (and 10th ranked) North Carolina on Saturday in Charlottesville. While Coach Mike Young’s Hokies (15-11, 7-8) currently stand in 10th place of the conference (meaning they’ll play in the ACC Tournament’s dreaded first round), he’s seeing his team make strides as they made 51% of their shots against the Cavaliers.

“They shared — willing to make the extra pass, willing to make the ball reversal,” Young said. “It’s just an easy game and this team sometimes complicated it and frustrated the hell out of me but we’ve had great spurts. And we had 40 minutes of really, really good offensive basketball.”

Tech plays three of its next five on the road but finishes with ACC bottom-feeders Louisville and Notre Dame.

Who’s Open: Georgetown (8-18, 1-14 Big East) rallied from 21 points down in the first half to make a contest of their Wednesday game against St. John’s before falling 90-85. The five-point defeat is the closest they’ve come to victory since a 74-70 loss to Seton Hall on Jan. 9 began what is now an 11-game losing streak.

But there is hope on the horizon Saturday as the Hoyas visit DePaul, the only team they’ve beaten this year in conference play.

How bad are the Blue Demons? Try last in the Big East in scoring and scoring defense, last in rebounding and turnover margin, while ranking 10th in shooting and field goal defense (last in those two categories: Georgetown).

The best thing about Saturday’s matchup is we won’t see these two teams tangle again this season (barring both teams posting upsets in the Big East first round and quarterfinals to set up a late semifinal showdown).

Last Shot: Howard (11-15, 5-4 MEAC) has the unenviable task of following up making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 31 seasons. One byproduct was Power Five and mid-major schools coming to D.C. to court the best Bison players. Case in point: former point guard Elijah Hawkins leads the Big Ten in assists at Minnesota while Steve Settle is getting significant minutes for a 13th place Temple team in the AAC.

Meanwhile, those who have stayed with the Bison are currently in a five-way tie for second place (that’s right, five of the eight teams in the league are 5-4, making this the most intriguing race in late February).

Coach Kenneth Blakeney’s team leads the MEAC in shooting as well as from three-point range, with guard Bryce Harris (16 points and 7 rebounds per game, 57% shooting) posting big man-type numbers. The Bison face Morgan State on Saturday at Burr Gymnasium 28 days after losing at the Bears by six. I’m looking forward to being courtside.

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Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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